Grant Wacker is the author of One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham (Eerdmans). The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
Just before Christmas last year, Mark Galli of Christianity Today dropped a bomb in the already turbid waters of American evangelicalism. He called for President Donald Trump’s removal, either by ballot or by impeachment.
Billy Graham’s ghost stalked the drama that followed. The evangelist had founded the magazine in 1956. Though dead for nearly two years, and off the public stage for nearly 20, he still mattered.
Almost everyone invoked Graham one way or another. He usually appeared in one of two roles: as legitimator or as identifier. As legitimator, he purportedly backed up positions that the principals on all sides of the debate had taken. If Billy were still here, the rhetoric ran, he would have agreed with us. Other times he served as an identifier. His name provided not only an anchor in time and space but also, and more importantly, proof that this was a story worth reading.
Historians took a longer view. Years ago, George Marsden quipped that an evangelical could be defined as a person who really liked Billy Graham. The line invariably evoked a laugh because it rang true. When Graham died, another historian, Daniel Silliman—now news editor at CT—got the point exactly right. “For more than fifty years,” he said, “Graham was so famous people felt like they had to have an opinion about him. … [H]e became a lodestar of religious identity.”
Graham did not do it alone, of course. He built on a sprawling evangelical infrastructure already in place. And stinging attacks from mainline critics like Reinhold Niebuhr and fundamentalist ones like John R. Rice amplified his visibility. Even so, to tell fully the story of mid-century evangelicalism without Graham, and his lingering power to shape assumptions, is unimaginable.
So how did Billy become the unseen guest at the dinner table?
The short answer is that he spoke so much on so many topics that it is easy to find words from him that seem to support diverse positions. He authored or authorized 34 books, helped produce hundreds of articles, and talked on thousands of occasions. And on some topics, his views really did change—sometimes dramatically—between the fiery outings of the 1940s and the patriarchal benedictions of the early 2000s.
But this diversity ran deeper than sundry words uttered at different points in his life. Rather, Graham fathered distinguishable impulses not just within himself but deep within the movement itself. They might be called the centripetal and the centrifugal. The former term suggests an inclination to look inward, to locate and then preserve a still point in a turning world. The latter suggests a contrasting inclination to look outward, to see the trends of the age and then make the gospel relevant to them.
Or to adapt the helpful metaphors that CT’s CEO Timothy Dalrymple used, Billy’s ministry exemplified the flag—“here we stand”—and the table—“now let’s talk about it.” The task was to balance inherited convictions with new experiences.
To my knowledge, Graham never used the words centripetal or centrifugal, but he manifested their spirit. He instinctively understood that the two impulses needed each other. The preacher never budged an inch on the core convictions inherited from his evangelical teachers at Wheaton College and elsewhere, but a lifetime of circling the globe and encountering new people and new cultures forced him to speak in more winsome and capacious ways. The proportions shifted.
The centripetal—or flag-planting—inclination turned up everywhere, but perhaps most conspicuously in the founding of CT in 1956. Three motives fueled Graham’s efforts here. The first was to define a center point for the emerging yet amorphous movement. The second was to police its boundaries by publishing some authors and advertising some books—but not others. And the third was to help evangelical spokesmen (and virtually all were men—white men) gain a respected voice in the marketplace of public discussion. In time, all three motives saw considerable success.